The Right Honourable John Philpot Curran

November 8, 2011 · 9 comments

in Collections,Conservation,Digital Collections,Printed books,Prints & Drawings,Projects

John Philpot Curran, seated, surrounded by some Illustrious Sons of Ireland including Patrick Sarsfield, Oliver Plunkett, Brian Boru and Thomas Davis.  NLI ref. PD HP (1875) 1

John Philpot Curran, seated, surrounded by some Illustrious Sons of Ireland including Patrick Sarsfield, Oliver Plunkett, Brian Boru and Thomas Davis. NLI ref. PD HP (1875) 1

by Eoin Lynch, Conservation Assistant

While working on The Clean Sweep book cleaning project, an interesting book I found in the Joly Collection was The speeches of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, edited by Thomas Davis and published in London, 1847. John Philpot Curran (1750-1817) was an Irish MP and barrister who defended several prominent members of the United Irishmen and Catholic Defenders prior to the 1798 rebellion. This book offers a collection of his speeches on various political issues of the day, including his opposition to the 1801 Act of Union with Britain and Ireland, his opposition to the French Revolution, and his speeches made while defending United Irishmen in court.

The reason for my own particular interest in this book is that I wrote a dissertation (MA in Historical Research) on William Drennan, founder of the United Irishmen. Curran defended William Drennan in court. Based on evidence from an informer within the Dublin United Irishmen, Drennan was charged by the Crown authorities with seditious libel in late 1793, on the grounds that he had written an Address to the Volunteers of Ireland in December 1792, calling for the Volunteers to arm themselves to fight for parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation.

The jury in the Drennan trial for seditious libel, 25 June 1794 from The Speeches of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, p. 221.  NLI ref. J 825

The jury in the Drennan trial for seditious libel, 25 June 1794 from The Speeches of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, p. 221. NLI ref. J 825

Drennan’s trial by grand jury was held on 25 June 1794. The government’s case was based on the testimony of one informer, William Carey, which Curran totally undermined under cross examination. William Drennan’s brother-in-law Sam McTier reported that ‘On his cross-examination by Curran (who displayed abilities greater than I was before witness to), he [Carey] perjured himself three or four times, and to be sure there never was any man made such a devil of as Curran made of Carey’. The Northern Star was equally vocal in its praise for Curran: ‘he made the most ingenious defence the case would admit of, and used his utmost endeavours to excite the passions of the jurors’. The discrediting of their chief witness fatally weakened the case of the government.

The final exciting moments of the Drennan Trial from The Speeches of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, p. 232.  NLI ref. J 825

The final exciting moments of the Drennan Trial from The Speeches of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, p. 232. NLI ref. J 825

The jury was reluctant to acquit the accused party; it required the intervention of a judge to force the jury to ignore the ‘unruly and seditious rabble’ and acquit Drennan on the remaining nine charges. The news of this victory for the United Irishmen’s cause was quickly spread across Ireland, with accounts of the trial printed in the Hibernian Chronicle in Cork, while the Belfast Newsletter and Northern Star newspapers published a full account of the closing argument made by Curran to defend Drennan.

John Philpot Curran was widely respected for his oratory and political activism, as well as his skills as a lawyer. He was famous for his wit, and is attributed (along with Edmund Burke) with having coined the phrase “Evil prospers when good men do nothing”. However his personal life was unsettled; His daughter Gertrude died in 1792; his wife Sarah left him for a clergyman in 1794, and his resulting libel against the man, Rev. Michael Sandys, became a cause célèbre in Dublin society for much of 1795. Furthermore, his daughter Sarah Curran was the famous lover and fiancée of Robert Emmet, who was executed for his doomed rebellion in 1803. John Philpot Curran disapproved of their relationship, to the point that when he discovered Sarah was engaged, he disowned her and then treated her so harshly that she had to take refuge with friends in Cork, where she died in 1808.

Caricature of John Philpot Curran as Master of the Scrolls. Etching attributed to a member of the Brocas Family, ca. 1809.  NLI ref. 2173 (TX) 13 (A)

Caricature of John Philpot Curran as Master of the Scrolls. Etching attributed to a member of the Brocas Family, ca. 1809. NLI ref. 2173 (TX) 13 (A)

I find Curran a fascinating character, and one whose wit and intelligence comes through clearly in the speeches contained in this book. Furthermore, he is an interesting Irish historical figure, whose speeches in this book can offer readers a clear sense of Irish political events during his lifetime.

Bean an Phoist adds: If you’d like to read any of Curran’s speeches for yourself, click into our catalogue and read it online from the Hathi Trust! We link from our catalogue to as much digitised material as we can, so keep an eye out for Hathi Trust, Google Books, or Open Library icons…

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Burke July 10, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I have recently found in my library a book by Rev. Michael Sandys entitled The Words of Christ which was supposedly written to “promote union among Christians of every denomination” I am interested in finding out more about him. Any information would be appreciated.

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Bean an Phoist July 11, 2012 at 8:22 am

Hello Michael. If you email info@nli.ie, one of our staff there may be able to help you…

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Eoin April 3, 2012 at 8:54 am

Hello Martin,

I never came across a reference stating he was in the Volunteers at that time. He certainly knew Henry Grattan, and shared some of his political views, but he seems to have focused his energies on his law career. If you do find any references that show that he did, I would be very interested in reading them.

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Martin Demler March 23, 2012 at 5:12 pm

I have seen some references referring to J.P Curran’s connection, membership, in the Volunteers. Do you know of his connection with the Volunteer movement in the 1780-1790 period? I can find no backup references.

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Eve Gillmon December 1, 2011 at 3:44 pm

John Philpot Curran’s treatment of his daughter Sarah seems to be a matter of some dispute. That she took refuge in Cork at some point is generally recognised, but is there any basis for the rumour that she had also travelled to USA where she had a child (of Emmett), before returning, marrying and dying in 1808?

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Bean an Phoist December 5, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Eve,
My knowledge of Sarah Curran and her life after 1803 is limited, as I focused more on my research on her father, although I admit that I do find her to be a very interesting character. I do not know if she did emigrate to America, as in the case of Robert Emmet’s brother Thomas Addis Emmet.
I would suggest you read Marianne Elliot’s excellent biography of Robert Emmet, entitled Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend. It gave me good information on Sarah Curran (but little on her father) so it might offer you the information you are looking for. If you can confirm that she did go to America, please let me know…
Eoin

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Dónall Ó Luanaigh November 23, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Eoin,

As it happens,I attended a lecture this evening on St.Patrick’s Cathedral given by the Dean. He showed a slide of the John Philpot Curran memorial in the Cathedral and mentioned that Curran despite his prowess as a lawyer is now mainly famous for being the father of Sarah,whose doomed love affair with Robert Emmet always attracts notice. Many years ago,while visiting St.Enda’s with the National Library Society,we tried to find Curran’s house.It is long gone,but I think there is a photo in the Library’s Lawrence Collection?

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Bean an Phoist December 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Donal,
During my research in both the National Archives of Ireland and the National Library I never came across any picture of where Curran lived, although there are several prints of John Curran himself. I have checked through the online catalogue but there is no sign of it there.
I talked to the librarians upstairs, and they say that the National Photographic Archive has the originals, but we do have the microfilm copies of the Lawrence collection available in Kildare Street…
If you need any further help or information you can email me at eoinlynch86@hotmail.com
Eoin Lynch.

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